When Did We Decide That Feminism Was About Being Perfect?

Doing “unfeminist” things doesn’t make you a hypocrite, it makes you human.
Publish date:
December 10, 2013
feminism, perfectionism

Here is a list of things I do that aren’t feminist:

  • Sleep
  • Wear eyeliner
  • Watch the "Real Housewives of Miami" (and Beverly Hills)
  • Buy groceries
  • Talk to my dog about how pretty she is
  • Eat popcorn and wine for dinner
  • Wear Spanx (on special occasions)

To be clear, what I’ve compiled at here is not a list of “unfeminist” activities, but rather a list of Things People May Or May Not Do, Regardless Of Their Feminist Credentials. The point being that nobody, no matter how feminist, “does feminism” all the time. And that doesn’t make any of us “bad” feminists.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett wrote an article for The Guardian last week pointing out the ways in which she is a "hypocritical" and “half-arsed” feminist. She labels herself in these ways because she engages in “unfeminist” activists such as dieting and drunk twerking in her kitchen.

I, myself, have been told by friends that I'm a hypocrite or a "bad" feminist if, for example, I make negative comments about my body or worry about wrinkles. While I understand and agree that hating our bodies or feeling negatively about our appearances is something we should push back against, I don’t agree that succumbing to those thoughts on occasion or even saying them out loud is “unfeminist.” If we can’t be honest about our true thoughts and feelings, I have the feeling we won’t get very far on any front.

Truthfully, I don’t spend an inordinate amount of energy body or face-hating. But I think about it more than I’d like. The reality is that many, many women do struggle with low self-esteem, and they are no more or less feminist than anyone else. Like all-to-most women, those thoughts –- the ones that say I should be thinner or prettier or have smaller pores -- have been present most of my life. It’s not surprising; women are told they are flawed, and even disgusting, all the time.

So I feel angered by the notion that being a feminist means we’ve resolved all of our insecurities or that we’ve managed to completely reject years of cultural and social messages telling us we are our bodies and that if we don’t fit a certain mold, we are worthless. Telling a woman she’s a “bad feminist” because she, too, has been impacted, on whatever level she has, by these woman-hating messages seems, actually, to miss the point of feminism.

Feminism isn’t a self-help book. It isn’t going to turn you into a perfect being. Socialization is far more powerful than our individual minds and we are all affected, as much as we may fight back, by the world around us.

This is the problem with making individual acts and choices the factors that define feminism. Wearing eyeliner or not wearing eyeliner is not “feminist” or “unfeminist,” and sexy dancing in your kitchen isn't going to undo the feminist movement. While we should be aware of our own behaviors and interrogate the choices we make within the context of a patriarchal, capitalist society, those choices, in and of themselves, will not determine the status of women worldwide.

A woman who gets breast implants, for example, may well not be making a “feminist” choice but, at the end of the day, that choice isn’t merely an individual one and she is not to be blamed for the factors that led her to make this decision. While it would be great if that individual woman chose to accept her body as it is and didn’t feel she needed to create a body that would be perceived as more “sexy,” it’s not really her fault she feels that way.

In other words, there is a larger context to our choices and actions, and because of that, it’s unlikely that any one individual woman is going to have Perfect Feminist Thoughts and make Perfect Feminist Decisions at all times. Nor should she be expected to.

When did this idea that, somehow, to be a "good" feminist, we must be "doing feminism" all the time? Women don't diet because they're "bad feminists" -- they diet because the media tells them women must be thin in order to be considered beautiful and that women must be beautiful in order to be valued. If dieting makes one a "bad" or "half-assed" feminist, then we are all "bad," "half-assed" feminists. Because we’re all imperfect human beings who don’t exist in cultural bubbles.

I’m at peace with the choices I make in my personal life because I understand that feminism is about more than just me. I understand that various women will choose to let their hair go gray and that others won’t. That some women will diet their whole lives and others won’t –- maybe some will even be able to eventually stop struggling with negative body image. Wonderful.

Some women might wear Spanx under their Not Feminist Dress, while others might choose more efficient bathroom trips. But those decisions and struggles can’t define our feminism. And shitting all over yourself for being a “bad” feminist because a Not Feminist Thought slipped into your head and out of your mouth isn’t going to help anyone.

Feminism can be difficult at times, to be sure, but it doesn't, as Cosslett suggests, "demand both your innards and your soul" -- it demands you work towards ending the global oppression of women in whatever way you can. The fact that we all, as individuals, fall victim to things like dieting, low self-esteem, and hair dye, doesn't make us hypocrites or "bad feminists," it makes us human.